Glorianna Davenport: Desire versus Destiny

[Readings] (01.27.09, 5:01 pm)

This essay is on the competing roles of desire and destiny within literature, and the ways in which they could operate in electonic literature. Desire is a phenomenon experienced by the reader of a text, who wishes something to happen within the context of the story, or simply wishes to find out what happens next. The act of reading may be seen from both the light of desire and destiny, where the reader desires to know what happens next, but the destiny of the narrative is fixed and unchangeable. The question of desire and destiny is about consequence and control. Destiny controls outcomes and thwarts the consequence of desire.

It should be noted that this discussion makes the most sense when applied to classical texts. Works of modern literature and media are often interested in convoluting the desire and destiny, even when they operate by conventional narrative forms. Modern texts can be interwoven and impenetrable as destined narratives, but require instead the reader to take an active role in experience and interpretation.

The act of reading is unidirectional. If the reader wishes the narrative to take a different direction than the one it has taken, she is powerless to effect such a change. The reader can stop reading, or watching, or listening, but cannot undo the course that the narrative has taken. The reader has control over what is consumed, but not the text or its chronology. Because the text is already written, it is destined.

Davenport poses the question of how to reincorporate desire into narrative. Were such a thing possible, it would raise complex questions and cause implications in how to think of such narratives. Davenport argues that responsive narrative is a social need, and requires thinking creatively of narrative time.

The creation of narrative, the act of telling is motivated by desire, which effects a communication of the writer’s values and beliefs. The author expresses desire by creation of a world, a redescription of the world of the author. “The act of telling incorporates the desire to be heard. In shaping the world, the situation, the characters, and the action, an author inevitably incorporates her own set of bounded “life” values which are structurally embedded in the social contract that conjoins the artist, her community, and the economis of the act of making.”

The process of writing is conveyed as a simulation. The author imagines and describes a world, and the author creates the story by asking “what happens next.” The reader too is motivated by this desire in the experience of reading. Through the process of writing, the author reveals more of the world and conforms to the rules of the story world. These rules are closely tied to the cultural world of the author. Davenport compares how Greek tragedy, Shakespearean plays, and the 19th century novel each reflect the value systems of those eras.

Stories are understood as existing in two kinds of time. One is the time of the story world, which is composed of meaningful events and moments, and the second is the time experienced by the reader. The time of the story world may shift in one direction or another, it may fold in on itself, and it may expand and compress. Control over the story world, whether by the author or through some interaction of the reader’s, must take place and operate within the time of the story world.

In terms of the kinds of ways that users might be able to effect story worlds, Davenport offers two potential means for doing so. The first is the collection-based model, where users collect story elements and assemble them into meaningful sequences. In order to effect agency over the story worlds, readers can inject new potential narrative items. The software itself may take an active role in assembling these and returning information to the user. The second model is aimed toward multiplayer online games, which are highly authored and do not possess generative power. Davenport suggests a means for using commonsense reasoning to dynamically create new narrative segments for the players.

I believe that Davenport’s posed solutions to responsive narrative in story worlds is feasible, but there would necessarily be many forms for their potential implementation. She does not suggest a simulation based approach to effecting game worlds, but does describe narrative authorship as operating in a distinctly simulation oriented manner. This approach is dramatically different from, say, Scott Turner’s approach to story generation.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorDavenport, Glorianna
TitleDesire vs. Destiny: The Question of Payoff in Narrative
Tagsspecials, narrative, cybertext
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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